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5 Geniuses Who Renounced Their Work

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It’s tough being brilliant. It’s even tougher when you hate your own masterpieces.

1. Tony Kaye
The Forgotten History of American History X

Before director Tony Kaye embarked on his first feature film, 1997’s American History X, he’d already been declared a genius of the advertising world. Kaye was famous for taking months to craft the perfect 30-second commercial, and his meticulousness only bolstered his reputation. Top brands including Guinness and Volvo sought out his services, because he was just that good.

But Kaye was more than a perfectionist; he was an egoist and an eccentric. During a period of unemployment in the mid-1980s, Kaye ran a full-page ad in London’s Evening Standard proclaiming, “Tony Kaye is the Greatest English Director Since Hitchcock.” He also attempted to start his own art movement, which included an “exhibition” of a homeless man in London’s Tate Gallery.

So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that American History X turned out the way it did. Studio execs at New Line Cinema were impressed by the concept behind Kaye’s pitch—to create a film about a former skinhead who tries to keep his younger brother from following in his footsteps. But after shooting 200 hours of footage and delivering a rough cut to the producers, Kaye still wasn’t satisfied with the movie. He wanted to tweak the storytelling, and the studio agreed to give him another eight weeks to complete the project.

During those two months, Kaye did virtually no editing. Instead, he went to a Caribbean island to consult with poet Derek Walcott, who plied the director with a few vague ideas about how to improve the film. Upon returning, Kaye decided to add in footage of actual neo-Nazis, but he had no idea how long that would take. Exasperated, the studio execs eventually pried the movie out of Kaye’s hands, and New Line released an earlier cut of the film.

At that point, Tony Kaye lost it. He sued the studio for $200 million and demanded that Humpty Dumpty be credited as the director. He also spent $100,000 on print ads that trashed the movie. In interviews, he badmouthed the script and claimed that actor Edward Norton had been wrong for the lead role. Yet in spite of Kaye’s insistence that the movie was horrible, American History X went on to garner terrific reviews—not to mention a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Edward Norton.

2. W.H. Auden
The Poem That Wouldn’t Die

W.H. Auden’s best-known poem, “September 1, 1939,” was written the day that Germany invaded Poland, launching World War II. From the moment it was published in The New Republic that year, the work was instantly popular—but Auden wanted to revise it. He thought parts of the poem rang false. He especially hated its most famous line: “We must love one another or die.” Auden later reflected, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” So in the next version of his poem, Auden altered the text to read, “We must love one another and die.”

Even after making the change, Auden continued to despise the line. In subsequent versions, he resorted to cutting the entire stanza, and eventually decided he wanted to do away with the piece altogether: “The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.”

To Auden’s dismay, people kept reading and quoting “September 1, 1939.” The poet was particularly irritated when President Lyndon Johnson used the poem in his 1964 “Daisy” TV spot attacking opponent Barry Goldwater. The ad featured a little girl plucking petals off a flower, as the image of a nuclear explosion emerges behind her. As the mushroom cloud balloons to fill the screen, President Johnson says in a voiceover, “We must either love each other, or we must die.”

After seeing the ad, Auden said, “I pray that I never be memorable like that again.”

3. Frederic Remington
The Way the West Was Lost

Decades before the movies of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Frederic Remington’s illustrations created the mythic American West. During the 1880s and 1890s, readers devoured his depictions of grizzled cowboys and sinewy horses, reproduced by the hundreds in magazines and books. He illustrated Teddy Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail in 1887 and was a correspondent during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

But the artist wasn’t much of a cowboy himself. Born in New York, Remington went to art school at Yale, where he spent more time playing football than studying his craft. At age 19, he headed out West for a few years, visiting Montana and New Mexico and even making a go of sheep ranching in Kansas. However, he found the work difficult and tedious and soon returned home to New York, where he lived for most of his life.

While his experiences on the frontier inspired his most famous works, Remington grew tired of painting crowd-pleasing cowboy scenes year after year. He wanted his work to become more abstract and expressive. He even began branching out into sculpture. But the public wasn’t interested in his experiments in modernism; his cowboy paintings were paying the bills.

On January 25, 1908, Remington became so frustrated while painting a particularly tricky scene that he decided to burn the canvas. He built a bonfire on his front lawn and torched the unfinished painting; then he proceeded to toss his other work into the flames. He ended up destroying more than 100 paintings that night, with millions of dollars in art going up in smoke. “They will never confront me in the future,” he wrote.

Indeed they didn’t. Remington’s sculptures became his most lasting work. Today, one of his bronzes, “Bronco Buster,” sits next to President Obama in the Oval Office.

4. R. Crumb
Drowning His Own Kitten

Indie cartoonist Robert Crumb became famous in the 1960s for his cast of raunchy characters, including Mr. Natural and the “Keep on Truckin’” guys. But his best-known creation was the smooth-talking, sex-crazed Fritz the Cat. Ballantine Books published a paperback collection of Fritz’ tales in 1969, and a copy ended up with animator Ralph Bakshi. An up-and-coming genius in his own right, Bakshi was looking to make an animated movie for adults, and Fritz seemed like perfect source material.

When Bakshi approached Crumb with a movie deal, the cartoonist waffled. He’d lost interest in Fritz years ago, but he also didn’t want to turn down Bakshi. To avoid making a choice, Crumb left the decision up to his wife, who thought both the film and the immediate paycheck were good ideas.

It turned out that Crumb had good reason to be hesitant. Bakshi didn’t feel obligated to stay true to the original work, and he used Fritz as a vehicle to voice his own views—depicting hippies as would-be fascists, embracing toilet humor, and including unexplained violence. Bakshi presented the material as an attack on the 1960s—a decade that had been very good to Crumb.

When Crumb previewed the finished film, he was appalled. The politics were bad enough, but in Crumb’s words, the toilet humor suggested a “real repressed” attitude toward sex. It was too late to change anything, though, and Fritz the Cat was released in theaters. The first animated film with an X rating, Fritz became a hot topic and earned massive amounts of publicity. Bakshi, for his part, was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the field of animation.

But Crumb got his revenge. A few months after the movie’s release, he drew a comic titled “The Death of Fritz the Cat,” in which he killed the character with an ice pick to the head. The cat was finished, and Crumb refused all future adaptations of his work.

5. Ludwig van Beethoven
Turning a Deaf Ear

In addition to being a brilliant composer, Ludwig van Beethoven was a shrewd businessman. He dedicated most of his work to wealthy benefactors, with the hope that they’d keep giving him money. But in the early 1800s, Beethoven decided to shift his strategy and honor the man he admired the most—Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven believed in the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, and he saw Napoleon as a charismatic leader who was making a real effort to reform government. In 1803, the star-struck composer named his third symphony the “Bonaparte” symphony.

Of course, when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor of France in May 1804, Beethoven was horrified. The composer ripped apart the title page to his symphony, yelling, “Now, too, he will tread underfoot all the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, and become a tyrant!”

After cooling off a little, the composer decided that the symphony was still good, but he changed the title. He renamed it the “Eroica” symphony, dedicating it to a generic “heroic man.” The passionate work is still one of Beethoven’s most-performed pieces. To this day, the library of Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall keeps an original copy of the composition on display—complete with Napoleon’s name violently scratched out.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”